Humans Used Magic Mushrooms, Opium

Agata Blaszczak-Boxe

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Opium, "magic" mushrooms and other psychoactive substances have been used since prehistoric times all over the world, according to a new review of archaeological findings.

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Researchers are bringing clarity to how hallucingens work.Credit: BortN66Shutterstock

The evidence shows that people have been consuming psychoactive substances for centuries, or even millennia, in many regions of the world, said Elisa Guerra-Doce, an associate professor of prehistory at the University of Valladolid in Spain, who wrote the review.

Guerra-Doce's previous research showed the use of psychoactive substances in prehistoric Eurasia. The new review "brings together data related to the early use of drug plants and fermented beverages all over the world," Guerra-Doce told Live Science.

For example, the evidence shows that people have been chewing the leaves of a plant called the betel since at least 2660 B.C., according to Guerra-Doce's report. The plant contains chemicals that have stimulant- and euphoria-inducing properties, and these days is mostly consumed in Asia.

Researchers have found the remains of human teeth that have the characteristic reddish, bloodlike "betel stains" in a burial pit in Duyong Cave on Palawan Island in the southern Philippines, according to the report.

Researchers have also found the reddish stains on the teeth of human remains that date between 2400 and 2000 B.C., and that were excavated from the Bronze Age site of Nui Nap in Vietnam. In that case, the teeth were stained by betel nuts, and it is possible that it was used for aesthetic reasons, as opposed to being used because of its psychoactive properties.

San Pedro cactus

These days, San Pedro cactus — which contains chemicals with hallucinogenic properties — is used in healing ceremonies by people living in the Andean mountains of South America, primarily in northern Peru, according to Guerra-Doce's paper. But the earliest evidence of San Pedro cactus usewas found in Guitarrero Cave, in Peru's Callejón de Huaylas valley. Researchers found pollen and traces of the cactus in the parts of the cave that were occupied the earliest, which date back to between 8600 and 5600 B.C.

Other evidence shows that a larger sample of material from the cactus found in the cave dated back to 6800-6200 B.C., according to the paper.

'Magic' mushrooms

The use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in Mesoamerica has been documented, thanks to the discovery of so-called mushroom stones, which are small sculptures resembling a mushroom. The sculptures have been found at numerous sites dating back to between 500 B.C. and A.D. 900 in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, according to the paper.

It's less clear how long ago magic mushrooms may have been used in Africa and Europe, according to Guerra-Doce. However, there are mushroom-looking pictographs in the prehistoric mural paintings found at Villar del Humo in Cuenca, Spain, which may represent hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Opium poppy

The earliest evidence of opium poppy use in Europe comes from the Neolithic site of La Marmotta in Italy, which dates back to the mid-sixth millennium B.C., according to the study. The domestication of the plant in Europe likely began around that time, in the western Mediterranean, and then spread  to northwestern Europe by the end of that millennium.

"Apart from its use as a food plant, there is also uncontested evidence for the exploitation of its narcotic properties," Guerra-Doce wrote in the review. For instance, traces of an opium poppy capsule were found on the teeth of a male skeleton buried at a mining site near Barcelona that dates back to the fourthmillennium B.C. Traces of opiates were also found in the bones of another male buried at the site.


It is not clear exactly when humans started using tobacco, but it is generally assumed that the plant was native to South America, according to the study. Pipes for smoking have been discovered in northwestern Argentine archaeological sites that date to 2100 B.C.

Researchers suspect the pipes were used for smoking either tobacco or other hallucinogenic plants, according to the paper.

Nicotine has been detected in the hair of mummies from several periods within the pre-Hispanic times in South America, according to the paper. In North America, the oldest smoking pipes found date back to the second millennium B.C.; however, these pipes could have also been used for smoking other plants, Guerra-Doce reported in the study.The earliest remains of actual nicotine in a pipe in North America date to 300 B.C.

The review was published online Jan. 2 in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture.